Do you remember my eleventh birthday, that day last summer when we went to the beach?
I do. You worried a lot that day. You worried about my bare feet on the rough promenade, and you worried about my shoulders in the sun, and you worried about the water as I ran towards the waves. You called after me as I went, telling me to be careful. When I came out, you covered me in my favourite towel – that big, purple towel, and it wrapped all the way around me and all the way around you and everything was just me and you; just me and you in our very own purple world. You kissed me on the top of the head and warmed my fingers in yours, and you whispered something down to me that I can’t remember now. We took a photo then, me with the purple towel still covering my shoulders, and I grinned as you bent down to press your face against mine. Later, when we came home, we looked at it while we ate gingernut cookies on the sofa – under that tattered, flowered quilt, and you tucked the edges in around us to make sure we kept warm.
Anyway, Granny – that’s the photo they chose. For the funeral.
They framed it and put it up at the front of the church, next to where the man was talking about you. It’s massive, Granny, this photo of us. You would hate how big it is. My hair is all wet and stuck to the side of my face in it, but it looks kind of funny because, with your face next to mine, it almost looks like it’s your hair, too.
“I hadn’t seen your grandmother for thirty years,” I hear someone say, and I turn around and look up to see a middle-aged woman standing close to me. I have no idea who this woman is, but she keeps talking, telling a story about the day you and your husband, George, sold the house next to hers and moved away to live in the caravan.
“A caravan?” I interrupt her. “Are you sure?”
The middle-aged woman looks a bit confused.
“Yes, dear,” she responds. “Your grandmother loved that thing,” she sighs, placing a hand on my shoulder. “You know,” she continues, smiling. “I believe your mother was even born in it.”
I hesitate, looking up at her. I wonder if I should act like I know these things already, considering I have been living with this caravan-lady my entire life. She says you spent two years in it. I understand why I didn’t know about Mum – we never talk about Mum. But two years in a caravan, Granny? Really?
Another woman comes up to me, shaking my hand. This one has wispy hair, a dark dress, she’s old – and, before you ask, I don’t know how old, Granny. Just old. Anyway, she says she’s called Susan, and Susan is telling me that you were in London together in your early twenties, during the war. Apparently when the air raid warning went off you would run to the shelter together, and when you were there, huddled underground with strangers in the dark, she would play guitar and you would sing, and people knew the two of you as the musical girls from Mayfield Street.
“She had the most beautiful voice,” Susan says, brushing tears from her eyes.
I’m sorry Granny, but what? What? The only time I heard you sing was at Christmas, when you’d faintly hum along to songs in the kitchen that had words in them that I didn’t understand. You’d stop when I asked you about them though, and you’d hug me and tell me that one day I would understand. But, otherwise, you didn’t sing, so I’m telling Susan that maybe she’s thinking of the wrong person, but she just laughs softly and tells me it was you.
“God bless you, dear,” she says, and floats away down the aisle.
People keep talking, Granny, and I’m trying to remember all of these stories and store them up inside me like small pieces of you to hold on to and remember – but I don’t remember any of this. I’m trying to turn around and look back at that photo of us, that photo of you, because I need to. I need to see you, to make sure you’re still you, Granny, to make sure you’re still the you that I know: the you that would never sing in public, and would never live in a caravan, the you that would murmur Christmas songs quietly, so quietly, in a small, sheltered cottage near the edge of a town that I didn’t think you’d ever left.
A man walks in front of me, blocking the photo from my sight.
“Your grandmother was a wild one,” he says, laughing. “I knew her all the way back when we were only your age.”
He starts telling me a story from when you were twelve, when you stole your father’s wheelbarrow and jumped in it with your brother and his friend and raced it down the hill, only to scream at a young family walking up the road to jump out of the way. I’ve never heard you scream, but this old man called Michael is crying a little bit as he tells me the story of how you did. And now this woman has come over too – she says she’s called Doris – and Doris is saying that when you first met George you had to sneak out to meet him because your parents didn’t approve. Did you know that, Granny? Well, I guess you would know that. I didn’t know that. Doris is saying that you were fired from your first job for always laughing too much, and when Michael says, “Joan was always like that,” she smiles and nods, and I’m smiling, I’m smiling, but Granny: I’ve never heard you laugh louder than a whisper.
“You have your grandmother’s hair,” Doris says then, looking down at me.
She reaches out and strokes my hair in the way that you used to do, and I want her to stop; I want her to stop because I don’t have your hair, Granny. I just don’t. My hair is long and brown and thick but yours is – was – short and grey and thin, and when we would go on walks to the park a few strands of it would slip out from behind your knitted yellow hat and you would joke that it was getting in your eyes. But it wasn’t, it wasn’t because it was short. It was always short. But this man is telling me that your hair was just like mine – just like mine – but that’s impossible. You with long hair. That’s impossible.
At least, it was impossible, but maybe it is possible that the woman who sang in air raid shelters and stole wheelbarrows and laughed too much – maybe it is possible that she had long hair. Maybe it is possible that I didn’t know all of who you were. Maybe I only really knew about a quarter of who you were. An eighth maybe. A sixteenth. A thirty… I don’t know, Granny. More and more stories are being told to me and I’m getting lost. And the thing is I’m scared, Granny. I’m scared because they’re talking to me as if we knew the same woman, but I didn’t know a woman with long dark hair who had to cut it all off when it got caught in a lollipop in school. I knew a woman of afternoon chocolates and five-thirty pm dinner times before Coronation Street at eight and bed by nine. I knew a woman with hands like crinkled paper that would wrap around mine when we got near to the crossing on the high street. I knew a woman with glassy eyes and skin that was pale, so pale, that she’d let me look through her translucent arms on the sofa at night to count the veins beneath. I knew a woman who wouldn’t talk too loudly, and who wouldn’t walk too fast, and whose life revolved around that old wooden armchair by the glass door in the sunroom and milky cups of tea on Sunday afternoons.
But the church is empty now, Granny, and I feel a bit lost, really. I feel a bit lost realising that there are things about you I didn’t know and maybe there are more things that I still don’t know. And I’m standing here looking up at the photo of the two of us together on my eleventh birthday – do you remember that day? do you remember? – and your hair is short in that photo, Granny, it’s short, but all I can think of is that maybe it didn’t used to be, but maybe I’ll never know.
This post is brought to you by
How to Stop the Burning
by Zubaida Bello
In How to Stop the Burning, Zubaida Bello’s poetry focuses on themes of womanhood and inheritance, offering the audience an intimate portrait of herself through her words.
About The Author
Kate Wilkinson is a British writer who grew up between New Zealand and Scotland. She currently lives in Edinburgh where she is studying towards an MA in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.
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